After all these years, it’s no surprise the Mark VIII line-up of Deep Purple can still pull in the concert crowds. Roger Glover (bass), Ian Paice (drums),Ian Gillan (vocals), and Steve Morse (guitar) have more than earned their legendary status. As Don Airey, Jon Lord’s keyboard replacement, has been with the band since 2002, he can’t be considered the new kid on the block anymore.
Now, 43 years after their transformative In Rock, Purple’s Now What?! is being ballyhooed as the record fans have been clamoring for for nearly two decades. At least, that’s what they were saying on a recent VH1 Behind The Music Documentary. However, reportedly the group was at first reluctant to put in the time and energy to come up with their 19th studio album. After all, such records just don’t earn back the financial investments incurred anymore. But, judging from the lyrics, Deep Purple must have felt they had something to say.
While I think the claim this is the album fans have been yearning for is hyperbole, Now What?! is an appealing collection with much to like for Purple devotees and nubbies alike. But this isn’t “Smoke on the Water” Purple. With the exception of songs like “Hell to Pay,” with organ solos evocative of the Made in Japan era, most of us are going to be thinking this Deep Purple has become a progressive rock outfit. You’ll think the ’70s alright, but more the ’70s of Yes, Rick Wakeman, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
The British rockers recorded Now What?! in Nashville, TN with the legendary producer, Bob Ezrin. It might be a bit much to say the 11 songs are contemplative, but the elder statesmen of rock do seem to be wondering about the passing of time. Looking back into the past is the subject of the first two songs, “A Simple Song” and “Weirdistan,” the latter using very ’70s style Moog synthesizer runs. The aforementioned “Hell to Pay” ” looks back to the time when young people chanted things like “up the revolution” before the Who decided we shouldn’t get fooled again. As Gillan sings, “Wat was the rebellion all about?”
While he sometimes channels Jon Lord, Airey makes his own mark throughout. In the story song “Blood from a Stone,” in which a man considers crime to survive, Airey’s jazzy organ is very reminiscent of Ray Manzarek’s lines on “Riders on the Storm.” “Uncommon Man” is pure Emerson, Lake, and palmer. It has their trademark trumpet and organ fanfares after a very prayerful (if not a word, it should be) guitar lead in.
The final “official” songs also look to the past. While “All the Time in the World” has an eye for the future, it also wonders about the could-have-beens. Finally, the throwaway “Vincent Price” has fun with horror movies, going as heavy metal as this outing gets. As Gillan playfully tells us, “It feels so good to be afraid.”
If you were one of the lucky ones who picked up the limited edition of Now What?!, you also heard the bonus track, “It’ll Be Me,” and saw the bonus DVD featuring Deep Purple in conversation with additional audio material. I can’t attest to those delights.
Overall, the standard edition of Now What?! shows off a Purple able to execute perfectly sculpted songs where the front line is able to demonstrate their respective well-honed chops, especially the keyboard work of Airey. Gillan’s vocal range has long lost much of its screaming range, and his delivery is now more straight-forward and very different from the burning days of yore. That’s not a complaint, that’s an observation. Some instruments, as they must, weather with time .
As do bands. Deep Purple has so many miles in their rearview mirror, they do not only deserve a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they deserve to be inducted three times. One each for Marks I, II, and III. Now, Mark VIII is not breaking new ground and they don’t need to. But if they can still produce albums like Now What?!, they’ll still have devotees hopeful more new music is yet to come. Even if you’re an old Purple fan now yelling at the grandkids to turn it down, you’ll want to turn Now What?! up.